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City Hall Shakeup Combines Planning and Development with Permitting

Dallas Development Services Director Andrew Espinoza is leaving City Hall, a Friday memo from interim City Manager Kimberly Bizor Tolbert says.
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City planning and permitting in Dallas are the latest targets of a shakeup of City Hall by interim City Manager Kimberly Bizor Tolbert, a memo sent to Dallas City Council indicated today.

Tolbert told the Council that as of June 27, the Planning and Urban Design Department and the Development Services Department would combine into one department—the Planning and Development department. 

It will be headed by Emily Liu, who was recently hired by Tolbert as director of Planning and Urban Design. Tolbert has divided the department into “four core functions” that will be spearheaded by four deputy directors with longtime City Hall experience. Andrea Gilles, who was interim director of the Planning and Urban Design Department prior to Liu’s hire, will lead planning; Andreea Udrea will head up zoning; and Vernon Young will lead customer service efforts. Sam Eskander, who currently leads the land development team in the Development Services Department, will be interim deputy director over permitting, a move that will likely become permanent once he passes a state test for building officials.

“This is designed to create clear succession planning and publicly assigns contact for each of the four core functions,” Tolbert wrote. She said she believes the restructuring will improve the workflow for city staff and improve the experience for developers, builders, and residents who seek permits. 

“This new department will house all land use and permitting functions in one organization, combine zoning implementation and interpretation teams, restructure the permitting function to provide clearer ownership and accountable service delivery, and create a new team focused entirely on customer and team excellence,” she said. 

Assistant directors (those jobs will be posted by July 31) will be hired to report to each of the deputy directors.

Andrew Espinoza, who was the city’s director of development services, is no longer at the helm of the city’s permitting office. His last day is August 5; in the meantime, he’ll be working on unnamed projects under interim Assistant City Manager Donzell Gipson.

Dallas’ permitting woes have been lengthy and well-documented. Those who frequently work with the permitting department say they are unsurprised by the move, pointing to years of frustrations with the permitting process

One person in the real estate community who spoke on background said that while residential permitting got a lot of attention, commercial permitting was still a pain point for the development community. This was especially so for smaller businesses that rely on a quicker turnaround time but have fewer resources than larger commercial developers and businesses do.

When Espinoza took the reins in 2022, there were high hopes that he could wrangle a department mired in a backlog into submission. And in July 2022, he did, too, when we asked him how he planned to assess the issues in the department he took over.

“If we focus on the team, the customers, and our residents, the performance will follow,” he said. “I think we kind of fell short because we were just thinking, ‘this is just a permit, that’s just a permit, it’s just a permit,’ and that kind of mindset has really hurt us. Shifting the organizational culture is what is going to get us the performance.”

But things did not get better, and perhaps the proverbial nail in the coffin was the revelation this spring that the Development Services Department did not get the proper permits before allowing its staff to move into the $21 million, 11-story office tower the city bought on Stemmons Freeway. When it was discovered, those same employees were forced to move back to their old offices in Oak Cliff, until the fire and safety code violations were addressed and the renovations were complete.

With Espinoza leaving, many of the people responsible for explaining the permitting mess in general (and the Stemmons building debacle specifically) are now gone from City Hall. Former City Manager T.C. Broadnax is now leading Austin’s City Hall. Assistant city managers Majed Al-Ghafry and Robert Perez are now city managers in DeSoto and Topeka, Kansas, respectively.

It remains to be seen if the new realignment will bring about the changes developers and businesses have been clamoring for. But in her memo, Tolbert seems to recognize that a lot of work will need to be done, writing that the goal is to “build trust with the Dallas development community.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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